Endless race for superiority

History's dustbin is filled with weapons and defenses doomed to obsolescence. The Bush anti-missile plan will join them.

May 13, 2001|By CARROLL PURSELL

IN ONE SMALL scene in Charlie Chaplin's classic film "The Great Dictator" (1940), an inventor who says he has perfected a bullet-proof vest asks Hitler (Charlie, of course) to shoot him in the chest with a revolver. When he does so, the inventor collapses to the floor, and Charlie turns away with the wonderfully understated judgment, "Far from perfect."

The imperfect vest is one sort of failed defense; France's Maginot line was another. This string of fortifications built after World War I to block another German attempt at invasion might well have worked had the Germans, in 1940, attacked it head-on as so often happened in the first war. This time, however, the Germans simply went around it, turned the French flanks and carried the day with their infamous blitzkrieg.

We may be forgiven if both of these examples jump to mind when we consider President George W. Bush's missile defense shield proposal - child of President Bill Clinton's initiative, and grandchild of President Ronald Reagan's "star wars" fiasco. We don't know exactly how or whether the shield will work, how much it will cost, whom it will protect us from or when it will be ready. Tests thus far, meticulously crafted to succeed, have mostly failed, so its future (except for the congressional funding) is mostly speculative. At the very moment when the Bush administration is declaring that alternative energy sources such as solar and wind are too technologically dicey to risk significant investment in their research and development, it is pushing a baroque technological system of high-tech components that is truly pie in the sky.

It is wonderfully ironic that Bush's anti-missile system should be called a "shield." We can dispense with the niceties that a "shield" is somewhat larger than a buckler yet smaller than a pavis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. For our purposes, it is important only to remember that brave fighting men with shields long ago discovered that new technologies of warfare had rendered their defenses useless.

The fact is that we have been here before - not just 20 years ago with Ronald Reagan but 600 years ago when the flowering of medieval life was wilting under the blaze of then-new technologies. In 1495, a fortress in Italy, which had not long before withstood a siege of more than seven years, was reduced to rubble in eight hours by the cannon of Charles VIII. The introduction of firearms into European warfare rendered most defensive technologies obsolete.

The introduction of the stirrup to Europe (we don't know from where and exactly when) had ushered in the age of mounted shock combat. For the first time, soldiers on horseback could administer, and absorb, violent blows such as those delivered by lance, broadsword and battle-axe. The defensive technologies of armor were soon developed to cope with this new offense: Both men and horses were heavily, sometimes elegantly and always expensively outfitted with iron plates and chain mail. It has even been suggested that this innovation in warfare led directly to the creation of a warrior class in European society that paid for its hardware by heavily taxing the peasants in exchange for protecting them in times of danger.

Not only the imposing castles and fortresses but also the armored knights fell to the new improved warfare that relied upon guns. As late as World War I, some British officers were said to cling to the belief that bullets couldn't stop horses, but many an early modern knight learned the hard way that bullets could stop both horses and their heavily armored riders. That historical moment was famously captured by Mark Twain in his darkly comic novel, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Sir Boss, the 19th-century American foreman from the Colt pistol factory in Hartford, Conn., tried to reform but succeeded only in destroying the Arthurian England into which he had been projected. Forced to joust with one of the flowers of English knighthood, he quite sensibly - and, for the audience, surprisingly - simply pulled a revolver and shot his rival through both armor and chest. Hardly chivalrous, but, in the nature of the new industrial technology of the 1800s, very efficient.

Shifting fortunes

In the industrial era, such shifts in the fortunes of both offensive and defensive weapons have been common. The combination of elaborate trenches and machine guns in World War I gave such advantages to the defense that brave but hopeless infantry charges across no man's land typically gained only a few yards at the cost of casualties in the hundreds or thousands. When the British introduced the armored tank, however, both trench and machine gun proved less than adequate to protect established lines.

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